Trigger warning: Sexual Assault
Cho Nam-joo’s Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 is a South Korean novel that was released at the height of the #MeToo movement in South Korea and gained momentum immediately through its ability to encapsulate every woman’s experience. It was translated from Korean to English in 2020, and, through its simple story telling techniques and straight-forward tone, it has managed to evoke extreme anger. On the surface level, the book does not appear to contain anything exceptional, as the name “Kim Ji-Young” is the Korean equivalent to the English “Jane Doe.” However, it is that very fact that makes the book so relatable to the everyday reader. The chronological structure of Ji-young’s life, coupled with the statistical data the book frequently provides, highlights how Ji-young represents all women through her resentment of and compliance with the constraints of societal norms.
The novel opens with Ji-Young as a 33-year-old wife and mother who begins to embody and take on the personalities of other women in her life. Her husband takes her to a psychiatrist who diagnoses her with a form of dissociative depression, and it is his notes that structure the rest of Ji-Young’s unremarkable tale. We are then taken through a chronological journey as a third person narrator explores Ji-Young’s experiences with sexism in her childhood, adolescence, early adulthood, and marriage. Despite being set in South Korea and exploring South Korean norms specifically, Kim Ji-Young’s experiences resonate with women all over the world as she is told growing up, “to be cautious, to dress conservatively, to be ‘ladylike’ [and that] it’s [her] job to avoid dangerous places, times of day and people.” These restrictive expectations of women are a recurrent theme in the novel, whether Ji-Young is at home, at school, or at work.
The experiences of one woman are used to examine societal structures where even complying with norms is detrimental. Ji-Young cannot escape the oppressive values of the men in her life as her brother is favoured by their grandmother, her father blames her for the men that harass her late at night, and she is expected to give up her career instead of her husband after she finds out about her pregnancy. However, the most conspicuous moment of misogyny in the book occurs after Ji-Young has already left her job when it is revealed that some of her male co-workers have distributed pictures of their female co-workers in the washroom and have then refused to take responsibility for their actions. Despite being the victims in the situation, the women are forced to address the fact that, “while offenders were in fear of losing a small part of their privilege, the victims were running the risk of losing everything.” This objective statement carries a lot of weight: it succinctly summarizes the undeniable truth of victim blaming in not only Ji-Young’s life, but in the lives of women from different cultures and times.
The millennial woman’s struggle with being a working mom is also addressed, and this culminates in Ji-Young’s eventual depression. Despite the large role that family planning strategies and gender discrimination play in modern working culture, Ji-Young’s “career potential and areas of interest were being limited just because she had a baby.” In an argument with her husband, Ji-Young exclaims, “I’m putting my youth, health, job, colleagues, social networks, career plans, and future on the line. No wonder all I can think about are the things I’m giving up. But what about you? What do you lose by gaining a child?” The differences between these opposing gendered perspectives are highlighted through this conversation because Ji-Young’s husband is incapable of comprehending the complexity of Ji-Young’s position as a working mother. This reaction also reinforces the idealized version of motherhood and maternal love in which women are expected to endure everything, to accept all pain and suffering since their sex predisposes them to be mothers. This glamorization of motherhood also shows the way that society will never acknowledge the struggle of being a stay-at-home mother and it excuses men from being “unaware” about childcare.
After childbirth, one of the biggest factors that pushes Ji-Young into depression is domestic work. The chilling third person narrative brushes past the double standard which places domestic labour below other physical jobs and normalizes the view that housework and childrearing are inferior forms of labour. The multifaceted perspectives on childcare show why there is a refusal to attach any monetary value to it because “the moment you put a price on something, someone has to pay” and no one values the woman’s work enough to pay for it. The taken for granted nature of domestic work also limits the advancements that can be made as the narrator states, “every field has its technological advances and evolves in the direction that reduces the amount of physical labour required, but people are particularly reluctant to admit that the same is true for domestic labor.”
Cho Nam-Joo manages to capture the infuriating collective experience of all women through Ji-Young’s individual routine. The chronological nature of the novel allows the reader to experience the accumulation of demoralizing instances alongside Ji-Young as she must comply with the institutionalized gendered structures that force her into a position of submission. The #MeToo movement served as the backdrop for the release of the novel; however, Ji-Young’s story highlights the way that “[t]he world had changed a great deal, but the little rules, contracts, and customs had not, which meant the world hadn’t actually changed at all” as she leaves the readers with a critical question, “Do laws and institutions change values, or do values drive laws and institutions?”
Malaika Nasir is a Pakistani-Canadian undergraduate student studying English literature. Her research interests include contemporary postcolonial immigrant literatures and the intersectionality of race and gender. She is currently the senior editor at The Muslim Voice Magazine.